Monday, August 24, 2009


I met with clients recently who own a wonderful adolescent boy dog. Wonderful, but misunderstood. I won't say what breed, but it's one who often gets a bad rep and it's not a bully type. Anyway, the owners are great. The type of people who are interested in their dog and treat him like a family member. Like most of my clients and dog owning friends who have, or aim to have, that kind of a relationship with their pooch, the female owner anthropomorphized while we were chatting, but then instantly hesitated and explained herself to me - almost apologetically.

Anthropomorphism is a no-no for many in the dog-pro circuit. Followers of the hierarchical pack philosophy already see the root of all behavior problems in the humanization of dogs, and people belonging to the science oriented group don’t believe that there is a place for anthropomorphism in science. World-renowned ethologist Roger Abrantes referred to it as “the crime of anthropomorphism”. I am guilty as charged. And receive periodically smiles usually reserved for small children, or a belittling sneer, typically from people without experience, but who took some science courses, maybe have a diploma or degree, and point that out during the first two minutes of a conversation.

Anthropomorphism, according to the dictionary, is: the attribution of a human form, human characteristics, or human behavior to nonhuman things such as deities in mythology and animals in children’s stories.

Dogs don’t have human form. But even that is debatable, or why else would dog mags hold dog/owner look-alike contests?

Human characteristics? You betcha. Dogs and people have much in common. Both species need mental and physical stimulation, thrive on social belonging, want to feel safe, like to play, are motivated to get stuff they like and avoid stuff they don't like, and synchronize their actions to the group’s. Both are, by nature, manipulative opportunists, except dogs are the way cuter ones.

Dogs also have a brain. And one that performs beyond simple mammalian survival tasks. Prestigious Harvard University Extension School offers a course named: The Cognitive Dog. Psychologist Paul Bloom states, “that for psychologists, dogs may be the next chimpanzees”. What’s good enough for Harvard, is good enough for me.

Dogs are more similar to us than different. Many humans are emotionally closer to dogs than to our genetic next of kin: apes. There is no harm in humanizing dogs as long, and that’s key, one also understands how dogs and humans differ. It is great that good science made it to dogs. I understand the Laws of Behavior and apply operant conditioning, but also translate what a dog might say could he communicate in a human language and have a great time putting English explanations to their actions. I gaga over dogs but am not a touchy-feely pushover, unaware of their species-specific needs and limitations.

In my world, science, leadership stuff and anthropomorphism are all inclusive. It, and analogies to human behaviors, adds clarity for my clients and often makes them more compassionate. They fall in love with their dog again. A little humor eases their tension, which in turn takes the edge of their dog’s.

Anthropomorphism can contribute to a harmonious, functioning dog/human relationship; the unique adventure of two species sharing a life together as companions. Let’s not reserve it just for cartoon characters and Disney movies.

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